I grew up in a family dispersed across various cultures but spent most of my childhood in Switzerland, a socially conscious country in a somewhat pragmatic fashion. Growing up in Switzerland, one of the world’s wealthiest nations, meant growing up in a culture of abundance, but at the same time with an appreciation for the preciousness of natural resources. Moreover, the Swiss value strong civic participation, and that mindset has shaped me until today.
In my work with INDEED, the innovation company I founded ten years ago, I tried to live up to the spirit of pragmatic idealism that my upbringing had impressed on me. A few years ago, I got rid of all hierarchies and job titles, to squash unhelpful power dynamics and organize work around expertise and passions. In addition to client project teams, we established communities of practice inviting all of our employees to weigh in on the “meta-issues” concerning our firm: its mission, values, domains of expertise, commitments, culture, and future vision.
Innovation-as-usual is no longer good enough when the world is on fire
But while I believe we took an innovative approach to redesign how we work and run our company, I have increasingly felt that the broader system we are part of is broken at the core.
We are celebrating Indeed’s tenth anniversary this year. We’ve helped numerous companies create new products, services, experiences, and business models during these ten years. We have helped them innovate, to aim for better and more. But now, ten years in, we realize that innovation is a hamster wheel. Creating cool products and services is no longer good enough when the world is on fire because of climate change, increasingly divided societies, and technology undermining our humanity instead of nurturing it. Innovation-as-usual is neither pragmatic nor socially conscious anymore.
We are at a tipping point: an ecological, an economic, a social tipping point. The chase for the next big thing, the next better thing, all in the spirit of relentless growth, is no longer sustainable. And innovation is not only part of the problem, it’s the heart of the problem.
Amidst all the fancy disruptions that we innovators are typically so keen on, the COVID-19 crisis turned out to be the only true disruption—disrupting everything, including some of my long-held beliefs and humbling me in the process. The pandemic suddenly forced me to ask the tough, essential questions: what matters? What do we ascribe value to? Who am I? Who do I want to be? What do I want to leave behind? The pandemic has been the mirror that doesn’t lie.
Before the crisis, I was convinced that if only we created consumer products based on human desires and needs, benefitting and fueling a growing wave of individualism and freedom, we would do our job well. Likewise, for enterprise clients, I assumed efficiency was the name of the game, so we helped clients, for years, to optimize their systems and processes. But then the pandemic showed us that resilience beats the efficiency, that in fact, a myopic focus on efficiency can undercut the long-term vitality of organizations, and be detrimental to the wellbeing of the people served by them.
Next-generation innovation should be for the next generation
The much-decried externalities of capitalism start right here—with innovation—and I’m suddenly seeing it more clearly than ever: chasing the next big thing is a one-way street. Do we really need the next food delivery app? Do we really need a smarter electronic toothbrush? Do we want faster cars, even if they are electric vehicles? These are rhetorical questions, but the time has come to not only answer them with conviction but to act on them.
As innovators, innovation catalysts, and designers, we’re the engine behind future products and services. And as we shape next-generation businesses and business practices, it would be a mistake not to consider that we are the last generation with the agency to save humankind from the climate catastrophe.
Our responsibility is clear: next-generation innovation should be all about making life better for the next generation.Karel J. Golta
The futurist and speculative designer Anab Jain recently called for a “More-than-human politics,” citing the anthropologist Anne Galloway, who challenged the consensus of human-centered design (and also, more broadly speaking, challenged humanism itself) by asking, “What if we deny that human beings are exceptional? What if we stop speaking and listening only to ourselves?”
Applying this reasonable provocation of thinking to business, we need to abandon the idea of human-centered innovation—the hitherto dominant brand of innovation based on meeting human needs, catering mostly to convenience and comfort—and shift to what I call “humane innovation.” Humane means treating all life and resources with dignity and respect, bringing the best of humanity to the task of creating new things and experiences, yet it no longer puts the human at the center of the universe.
Humane innovation begins at home. We at Indeed have been part of the old system for too long, and the degree of rebellion we exhibited—aside from the occasional client we said no to—is negligible. We are now poised to change that for real, and move from “human-first” to “humane innovation.” We must shift our philosophy and evolve our business model. We must begin to move our business toward becoming a circular business. This means that beyond “green-washing,” we are going to fundamentally redesign the tenets of our business, aligning it with what is demanded of us as “innovation citizens” to tackle them. We want to become part of the circular economy but also know how much we need to learn and grow to get there.
We are reinventing ourselves to design in service of humane wellbeing that considers the needs of all living things and resources, in service of advancing a more humane, sustainable future.
Our hope is that even as a small fish in a big pond, if we stop swimming in the lanes and start swimming against the stream, we can create ripples, by first educating ourselves and then our clients, and that will allow us to, step by step, innovate innovation.
Karel J. Golta
CEO + Founder